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  • John Reid

Honest Language- Sally Gabori

In May of 2012, after an invitation by the then CEO of Mornington Shire Council, Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, I spent two weeks on the Island working on a series of new works.


During this time I was fortunate enough to spend time at the Islands Art Centre and watch indigenous artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori c.1924–2015 work on a large canvas. This was a spectator only insight I am most grateful for and one I will never forget. Sally was working on a large-scale work lent against the back wall of the studio. She spent time sitting and standing as she worked on the black-primed linen that must have measured roughly 200 x 250cm.


She had an assistant who handed her paint and turned the canvas when needed.

Sally used acrylic paint straight from the pot and any mixing took place on the canvas surface. This particular work was in black, white and yellow ochre. The paints were not thinned at all and the brushes were cheap, ill formed and small, in relation to the scale of the work.

There were a number of other observations that struck me and have subsequently influenced my own approach to painting.


Firstly Sally never stood back from the work. She always worked close to the canvas, the scale of which was outside her physical reach. Once she had painted to a certain height with any part of the work the canvas would be rotated and painting continued.


This was not a process of pattern making on any level. Nor did it seem an expression of emotion in an action painting sense. This unfolding of the visual seemed a highly evolved and sophisticated form of story telling. It was obvious that the story was known on a deep level. It came from the body not the head and the paint language seemed so natural and obedient. There was knowingness about the process and the paintwork reflected a pure language, one that encompassed such an enormity of knowledge. There was nothing to gain from being clever here.


This was a process of absolute honesty and not in a precious way at all. There was no window for analysis or critique of any so-called abstract qualities. It hit you as a universal truth immediately that almost bypassed the personal.

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